To quote The Awl’s headline from December 2, 2011, Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough.
Carrie Mathison burst onto our television screens in October of 2011 as the central narrator to Showtime’s superbly riveting political thriller, Homeland. Based on Israel’s Prisoners of War and driven by the question what homecoming means to the lives of those formerly held captive, Homeland centers on Carrie Mathison, Nicholas Brody, and the cell of people who weave throughout their personal and political spheres. In “Homeland’s Roots,” a short extra via Showtime’s On Demand, series creator Gideon Raff says, “We had really interesting conversations about the differences between American and Israeli societies in terms of their approach to prisoners of war.” Series developer and producer Alex Gansa adds, “We had to find another avenue to tell the story and what we really found was this idea that Brody may have been turned in captivity.”
Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, is a returned POW held for 8 years by Al-Qaeda. He comes under Carrie’s radar because she had, ten months prior, received a tip from the bomb maker of Abu Nazir (leader of Homeland’s fictitious terrorist cell) that an American POW had been turned. Carrie adamantly believes that Brody is the man in question and, with little to no assistance from colleagues, begins a tireless trek to bring him to justice and prevent any further acts of terror on American soil.
Homeland is working with a hefty plotline and tropes often left undiscovered on our televisions. Hunting terrorists or any other version of the bad guy often makes it to our weeknight tubes, what separates Homeland is that not only are we dealing with a specific area of the political sphere (The CIA) with a woman in an important, central place of power, but also our main character is herself suffering: waging a constant battle against her bi-polar disorder and what it means to her as not only a woman but a successful career woman. Homeland writer, Meredith Stiehm, says on writing Carrie, “Carrie being bipolar does make her an unreliable narrator…I think it is interesting to ask the question through her character can you be really functional at the same time as having a serious illness?”
The answer to this question is the ride that is Homeland. A post by “filmschooled” via Persephone Magazine succinctly summarizes the role of mental illness among women in films like Sucker Punch and The Ward: “These films showcase mental illness both as the affliction of the untrustworthy (see the plea of “I’m not crazy!”) and as a vulnerability, which in turn is framed as an attractive trait.” These are just two examples of the ways in which women in media have often been compartmentalized and sexualized because of mental illness. Watching Claire Danes so exquisitely portray vulnerability, strength, and intelligence is a mesmerizing feat. Carrie Mathison is a character refusing to be sidelined, refusing to be pitied or fall into any of the traps set by society and the men who surround her. We watch Carrie, and throughout season one, trust that she is on to something, while, at the same time, giving pause to the idea that she could, potentially, be wrong. However, we root for her and none of this undermines Carrie because her passion for her job and, eventually for Brody, are the real passions of a woman who, though vastly intelligent, poised, and skillful still has not figured out exactly how to get her shit together.
We watch Carrie so sure of herself at the beginning of the series and, like the jazz music that accompanies the show’s opening credits and underscores Carrie’s ethos, we ride along the waves as her environment unravels reaching crescendo when she finds a sublime intimacy with Brody. This plotline, allowing both Damian Lewis and Claire Danes to come alive and show their full talents, worked and continues to drive the Homeland story because, as impractical as a union would seem at first, Carrie Mathison is a woman who can and does make her own choices. The plotlines that weave throughout Homeland meet at a crossroads that bridge Carrie’s personal and professional lives in a very dangerous, raw, and enigmatic triangle. In less deft hands than Ms. Danes’ Carrie’s flaws may be standoffish, peevish even, but the exceptional work she puts into bringing this dynamic woman full circle never falter. To the credit of the writers and producers of the show as well, dramatic irony is put into effect at all of the right moments, allowing us to know what Carrie does not: she is right. Even better, as I type this I am watching the most recent episode (12/25) and still find myself asking questions about what is fact and fiction. The one truth I know as a viewer of Homeland is that I trust Carrie and I am more than willing to go along for her ride, wherever it may take us.
Claire Danes, in British GQ, was asked about her character. She responded, “She’s like my kinky superhero alter ego now. Because as disturbed and troubled as she is, she’s always fucking right. Which is so nice because I so rarely am.”
It seems even Danes herself is not above the Carrie Mathison catharsis. Responding to writing Carrie for season two, Meredith Stiehm said, “…after we’ve seen her cut so low I take heart in seeing a character who is strong and has an important job and can maintain that as well as handling this illness that she has and after the first two episodes she is the old Carrie that we know.” Where Carrie is headed perhaps only the writers know, but I rest assured as a ready consumer of this Showtime delicacy that watching this character’s evolution will stay with me long after the series ends. As the opening credits relay, in response to Carrie’s mentor Saul’s stoic wisdom “everyone missed something that day” not everyone is Carrie Mathison.